Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead: Recipes and Recollections from a Syrian Pioneer

Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead: Recipes and Recollections from a Syrian Pioneer

by Habeeb Salloum


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Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead: Recipes and Recollections from a Syrian Pioneer by Habeeb Salloum

In the 1920s, Habeeb Salloum's parents left behind the orchards and vineyards of French-occupied Syria to seek a new life on the windswept, drought-stricken Canadian prairies. With recollections that show the grit and improvisation of early Syrian pioneers, Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead demonstrates Salloum's love of traditional Arab cuisine. By growing "exotic" crops brought from their country of origin--such as lentils, chickpeas, and bulgur--the Salloums survived the Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s, and helped change the landscape of Canadian farming.

Over 200 recipes--from dumplings and lentil pies to zucchini mint soup--in this updated classic will provide today's foodies and urban farmers with dishes that are not only delicious, but also climate-friendly and gentle on your wallet!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780889775183
Publisher: University of Regina Press
Publication date: 09/30/2017
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Habeeb Salloum is the author of many books, including Bison Delights, The Arabian Nights: From Lamb Kebabs to Baba Ghannouj, From the Lands of Figs and Olives, and Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa. His awards include the Gourmand Best in the World Prize for Best Arab Cuisine Cookbook and the Cuisine Canada prize. He lives in Toronto.

Read an Excerpt



In the fall of the year 1923, the warm rays of the sun reflected on the walls of the mud and stone houses of the (Qar'awn) Karoun, a town in the Biqa' Valley, located in the then French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon. The dry air was invigorating as my father, Jiryas Ya'qub Sallum (George Jacob Salloum), who, in the same fashion as his fellow townsmen, was part–peasant farmer, part-trader, hurried back and forth putting his affairs in order before departing for North America.

He was excited but at the same time sad, for he was leaving his young wife, Shams, my older brother Adib (Eddie), and myself, not yet born. The world he was leaving was not a tranquil place. The French occupation of Syria and the unsettled conditions this brought in its wake had prompted many of the townspeople to leave for the Americas. My father, even though he made a good living, wanted to enhance his status and decided that he, too, would join the exodus and try his luck in the beckoning so-called "New World."

In the early twentieth century, to the minds of most peasants, not only in Syria but in much of Europe, any location in the Americas was viewed as a place of opportunity. The United States, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada were the main destinations and it mattered not in which country these seekers of a new life disembarked. They had visions that every land in the "New World" had streets paved with gold.

Where a previous fellow townsman or relative had settled, they usually followed. In The Arab Americans: Nationalism and Traditional Preservation, Arab-American Abdo Elkholy writes that, due to the linguistic barriers, ninety percent of the early Arab immigrants went directly to relatives or friends. In just such a fashion, my father landed in Canada, a land that, according to the 1921 census, had barely 3,000 immigrants of Syrian origin.

From the far-off land of Syria, how did he end up in Saskatchewan? I have been asked this question countless times by Arab-Canadians and others. I am sure it was not a well-thought-out plan, but an unusual circumstance of fate that brought him to this wind-filled land. A relative of his, Dawud Sallum (David Salloum), who was a farmer in Hazenmore, a town in southern Saskatchewan, had written and asked if someone from the village wanted to come and work for him as a farmhand. Already a peasant farmer in his home village of the Karoun, but having always dreamt of emigrating to North America, my father quickly wrote and accepted the offer.

After a two-month voyage through the Mediterranean, then across France, where he was delayed for a month, he crossed the Atlantic, landed in Quebec City, then took a train to Hazenmore. He made this voyage speaking only the Syrian colloquial Arabic with no knowledge of any other language. I remember as a child listening to amusing tales of his adventures in France. One story he always related, and which I remember vividly, was of how each time he asked for a drink of water in a restaurant or hotel he was served wine, never being able to make the waiters understand that all he wanted was water. He left the country believing that everyone in France drank nothing but wine. Tales such as this were repeated many times and enthralled me in the same way that a child would sit and listen, captivated, to the stories in Alice in Wonderland.

In those years, unlike my father, most Syrian immigrants had settled in the eastern Canadian provinces of Quebec or Ontario. They made their living, in the majority of cases, through peddling or shopkeeping. Only a few went into farming. These early Arab immigrants were prepared to do almost anything to make a decent living. However, rarely did they cross the country to live in Canada's prairie provinces.

To immigrants unfamiliar with the English language and accustomed to a close-knit village life, country living in southwestern Saskatchewan was indeed lonely. Living on the prairies appealed only to those who had a little knowledge of Canada, to the adventurous, and later, to their relatives.

My father's work as a farm labourer lasted only a few months. The glittering gold of America, the dream of almost all the immigrants of that era, was not to be found working sixteen hours a day on a farm for a few dollars a month. In addition, having been an independent peasant farmer, he was not accustomed to being ordered around by another person; thus he could not adapt to having his relative telling him what to do.

He left the farm with no regrets, and moved to the town of Gouvernor to live near another relative, Musa Salloum, who was related to both my parents. Musa owned a general store, a mark of prosperity in that era, and agreed to outfit my father with a horse and buggy. This enabled him to become a peddler selling clothing and trinkets to the farmers in the surrounding countryside. Many Syrian emigrants before him had worked and prospered in this business, and he hoped to follow in their footsteps.

Like the other Syrian immigrants, my father was unaware that many Canadians looked down upon his new profession and ethnic origin. In that era, in the eyes of many Canadians, few qualities attributed to Arabs were positive and most were negative. In one of the early studies of immigration to Canada, J.S. Woodsworth, in his book Strangers Within Our Gates, cites a Dr. Allan McLaughlin, author of a series of articles between 1903 and 1905 on "Immigration" in Popular Science Monthly, whose interpretation and subsequent definition of the Syrians provided the general attitude towards this ethnic group. McLaughlin stated:

The mental processes of these people have an oriental subtlety. Centuries of subjection, where existence was only possible through intrigue, deceit and servility, have left their mark, and through force of habit, they lie most naturally and by preference, and only tell the truth when it will serve their purposes best. Their wits are sharpened by generations of commercial dealing and their business acumen is marvellous. With all due admiration for the mental qualities and trading skill of these parasites from the Near East, it cannot be said that they are anything in the vocations they follow but detrimental and burdensome.

During this period when my father was becoming established in his new trade, my mother, my brother (not yet three years old), and myself (less than a year old) followed our father's footsteps across the Mediterranean to France and then crossed the Atlantic. After a month of travelling, my mother, with her two small children, landed in Quebec City, then took a train to Gouvernor. The tales of how she travelled halfway around the world with no knowledge of French or English and the tribulations she encountered were, like my father's stories, to hold us spellbound during many cold Saskatchewan winter nights.

A few years after my mother arrived, my father decided that he had had enough of peddling and its servile ways. Even though he was making a fair income, he hated the trade. He could not become accustomed to begging people to buy his few pieces of clothing and household trinkets.

During the time my father was peddling out of Gouvernor, my eldest sister Ramza (Rose) was born. Our family was growing and the one-room shack was becoming overcrowded. This gave my father the incentive to leave the work he loathed and set him searching to find a farm. He yearned for a piece of land he could call his own. For him, hard work was a fulfilling way of life, not a bogey to be feared.

Our family's early social and economic hardships were mirrored by other Arab immigrants. The isolated rural areas proved to be the experimental laboratory in which their survival in the new land was to be tested. However, the hardy nature of the Arab immigrants and their readiness to work were, in many cases, not appreciated by old-time Canadians. McLaughlin typified this attitude when he wrote:

In their habits of life, their business methods, and their inability to perform labour or become producers, they do not compare favourably even with the Chinese, and the most consoling feature of their coming has been that they form a comparatively small part of our total immigration.

In the same vein, J.S. Woodsworth in 1909 added that the Syrians "are manifestly not fitted for life in Western Canada."

My father's wish to be a farmer was soon fulfilled. He was granted by the federal government a quarter section of land as a homestead eighteen miles north of the town of Val Marie. In the meantime, he had not been idle. He had saved a few hundred dollars from peddling, and with this he bought another quarter section of land, a team of horses, a wagon, and a plough. Unlike many other Arab immigrants of the time, my father did not intend to save money, then return to the old country to buy a house or a piece of land. He had decided that Canada was to be his future and permanent home.

I have often wondered how my parents felt when they reached their empty land. In the old country they had been used to seeing relatives and friends; now they were alone with not even a neighbour's house in sight. As they looked across the barren land, how they must have longed for their home in the Karoun or even their little shack in Gouvernor, which at that moment must have seemed like a palace. Surely they must have known that homesteading on the unbroken prairie was no easy task.

Nevertheless, in that summer of 1927, my parents were young and ambitious. To begin from nothing must have been an unnerving experience, but there was no turning back. They were pioneers in a land they had chosen and were determined to settle, ready to conquer whatever came their way.

Their first task was to build a habitable structure before the cold winter winds blew across the land. The previous owner of their quarter section had partially constructed a small framed building. However, he had left before even the outer walls had been completed. This unfinished shell served as a shelter for our family during the hot July and August days, but my father knew he had to do something before the icy winter blasts compelled both man and animal to seek a warm refuge.

Without money, he could not buy the materials he needed, but his background came to his aid. In Syria, people had built their homes from the soil and rock of the countryside, and my father was well-acquainted with their building methods. He had helped many of his relatives and friends erect their homes, and now he put this knowledge to work.

Near the frail structure where we lived, a part of the land was pure clay. With my mother's help, my father mixed clay with straw and water, creating a building mixture known as adobe — a word derived from the Arabic al-tub. They filled it into the inner walls and ceiling of the frame structure, and when the adobe hardened, the building became a habitable home, comfortable in the extremes of both summer and winter. In later years, the adobe was painted and proved both pleasant to see and highly durable. I remember returning to visit the abandoned homestead fifteen years after the home was built to find the walls were still like new.

At the same time as the house was being finished, my father started to plough the land to ready the soil for the next year's crop — our first harvest, which my father thought would set us on the road to prosperity. However, preparing the soil was no easy task. Not only did it need to be ploughed, but thousands of rocks had to be hand-picked from the fields.

Every morning my father would wake my brother and me at 4 a.m. and take us to the fields to help remove the many rocks. As tiny tots, we could pick only the very small stones, while my father laboured with the large boulders. We picked stones morning after morning. The task was unending, so that, even as a child, I came to loathe the sight of piled rocks.

Around 7 a.m., we would return to enjoy a hearty breakfast which my mother always prepared. After the meal my father would go to plough the fields while my brother and I helped with the chores around the house. These were pleasant tasks, however, compared to the picking of stones.

The virgin land being plowed by my father hosted many wild animals and birds which were to be found on the south Saskatchewan plains. Almost every day when my father returned from the fields, he would bring a few prairie chickens or rabbits for our daily meals. There was no problem keeping the extra meat. In summer, we put the meat in a pail, then lowered it into the well to just above the water line; in the winter, an outside shed made an excellent refrigerator.

Even though meat was important, it was only one item in our diet. During the spring and summer months, my mother would scour the nearby fields for the roots and edible greens known to her during her youth in the old country. In addition, every year she had a thriving vegetable garden which, with my brother's and my help, was watered by hand. From this excellent garden she kept us fed for the whole year. What we did not eat during the summer, she dried or cooked in jars for winter use. Hence, even though money was very scarce, we always ate well.

The excellent crop in 1928 made my parents forget the hardships of their first homesteading year. They planned for a rosy future, but fate did not look kindly on their many dreams. Thereafter, the bountiful years were few and far between.

In 1929, there was a small crop but nothing to compare with the previous year. The stock market crashed, bringing on the Depression, and, as if to magnify the catastrophe, Mother Nature refused to send the life-giving rains. It would be some years before the grain would again grow.

In no time, the land in that part of southern Saskatchewan became a desert waste. For the next three years, nothing grew, and the soil blew back and forth like the deserts of Arabia. How many times my father and mother must have cursed the day they came to this land where they had thought the streets were paved with gold.

During these years our neighbours, the nearest being three miles away, began to abandon their parched farms, but my father, with an expanding family, could not afford to move away. Besides, the harsh life which was forcing many of the people to leave did not affect us in the same way as it did our neighbours.


Excerpted from "Arab Cooking On A Prairie Homestead"
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Copyright © 2017 University of Regina Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Sarah Carter, v,
Preface to the New Edition, vii,
Preface to the First Edition, xi,
Acknowledgements, xiii,
CHAPTER 1 The Legacy of the Fathers: Our Family's Homesteading Days, 1,
CHAPTER 2 The Canadianization of Our Family, 11,
CHAPTER 3 Who Were the Arab Pioneers?, 21,
CHAPTER 4 Burghul: The Cornerstone of Our Diet in the Depression Years, 26,
CHAPTER 5 Yogurt Kept Us Healthy on the Farm, 46,
CHAPTER 6 Kishk: The Oldest and Healthiest Cheese, 61,
CHAPTER 7 Qawarma: An Ancient Food Which I Still Enjoy, 73,
CHAPTER 8 Chickpeas: A Well-Kept Secret Among the Syrian Immigrants in Western Canada, 83,
CHAPTER 9 Lentils: Part of Our Daily Menu, 97,
CHAPTER 10 Broad Beans: Delicious When Cooked by My Mother, 115,
CHAPTER 11 Garlic: A Natural Medicine, 127,
CHAPTER 12 Vegetarian Pies: Delicious, Nutritious and Easy to Prepare, 149,
CHAPTER 13 The Dandelion: A Healthy Weed Relished during the Pioneering Years, 164,
CHAPTER 14 Mint Brought Flavour and Fragrance to Our Food in the Depression Years, 179,
CHAPTER 15 Olives: A Culinary Joy Discovered in My Early Years, 190,
CHAPTER 16 Zucchini: Our Vegetarian Delight, 201,
CHAPTER 17 Tomatoes: Our Fruit during the Homesteading Years, 214,
CHAPTER 18 Potatoes: Mother's Dishes Still Make My Mouth Water, 227,
CHAPTER 19 Arab Stews: I Loved Them on the Farm, 241,
CHAPTER 20 Stuffed Vegetables: The Food of Sultans, 259,
CHAPTER 21 Stuffed Stomach: The Epitome of All the Sultan's Foods, 273,
CHAPTER 22 It Was the Bologna Sandwiches, Not Roasted Rabbits, for Which I Yearned at Harvest Time, 276,
CHAPTER 23 Our Family Rarely Enjoyed the "Meat of the Sea" during Our Farming Years, 283,
CHAPTER 24 Oh! The Joys of Saskatoons during Our Farming Years, 299,
CHAPTER 25 Arab Pastries: Our Christmas Sweets, 309,
CHAPTER 26 Figs: During Our Homesteading Years, They Existed Only in Mother's Tales, 322,
CHAPTER 27 After Food, Poetry Soothed My Soul, 331,
CHAPTER 28 Conclusion, 339,
References, 343,
Index, 345,

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